Hearst Ranch: A Brief History

by Victoria Kastner

In 2015, the Hearst Ranch celebrated its 150th year, making it one of America’s oldest ranches. This grass-fed, free-range cattle operation has changed very little during that time. Stephen T. Hearst, great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst and Vice-President of the Hearst Corporation’s Western Properties Division, says of the Hearst Ranch today: “nothing’s added but our history.”

That history began in 1865, when George Hearst bought nearly 50,000 acres of the Piedra Blanca Rancho (named by Spanish explorers for its “white rocks”) from José de Jesus Pico, who was granted the land in 1840 by Mexican governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. After California’s statehood in 1850, Mexican landowners struggled to retain their property, encountering difficulties in establishing their legal title, then suffering from the devastation caused by the drought of 1862-1864. The following year, George Hearst purchased the Piedra Blanca Rancho—which extended from San Simeon Bay to Ragged Point—paying almost a dollar an acre, when most ranches in the area could be purchased for less than half that amount.

George could afford this prime ranchland, having made a fortune in 1862 when he discovered part of the Comstock Lode, North America’s largest silver deposit. (Hearst’s holdings eventually included the Anaconda copper mine in Montana and the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota.) After this first big strike, Hearst returned home to Missouri, where at forty-one, he married nineteen-year-old Phoebe Apperson. Phoebe was seven when George departed for California in 1850, looking for gold. When he returned twelve years later, she was an attractive and dedicated schoolteacher, with a lifelong love of education. Their only child, William Randolph Hearst, was born in 1863 in San Francisco, where they settled in order to oversee their mining and ranching investments.

Hearst gradually acquired more property around San Simeon, including the 13,184-acre Rancho Santa Rosa and the 4,469-acre Rancho San Simeon. At first, they used it primarily as a stud farm, and leased dairy farms to local residents. In 1878, George built a 1000-foot-long wharf at San Simeon Bay; a warehouse (still standing) at the base of the wharf; and an eighteen-room Victorian ranch house, east of San Simeon (still used by the Hearst family).

After these improvements, George left the ranch largely unchanged, saying he was “saving it for the boy.” His focus shifted to politics. He was elected to California’s state assembly in 1865, and in 1886 became a United States Senator. (Appointed to fill a Senate vacancy, George was elected the following year.) He also acquired the San Francisco Examiner (family legend claims he won it in a poker game), where—in 1887—William Randolph Hearst began his career in journalism,at age twenty-four. Only four years later, Senator George Hearst died in office, and was celebrated for his generosity and unpretentiousness.

”I love this ranch. It is wonderful. I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks and even the hot brushy hillsides – full of quail – and the canyons – full of deer. It is a wonderful place. I would rather spend a month at the ranch than anyplace in the world.”
– William Randolph Hearst, 1917

Phoebe ran the ranch for the next twenty-eight years, with Will sharing her dedication. He wrote her in 1917: “I’d rather spend a month at the ranch than anyplace in the world.” When Phoebe died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, she was nationally acclaimed for her philanthropy, having donated $21 million dollars to causes including the University of California, the YWCA, and the restoration of California’s missions.

”I love this ranch. It is wonderful. I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks and even the hot brushy hillsides – full of quail – and the canyons – full of deer. It is a wonderful place. I would rather spend a month at the ranch than anyplace in the world.”
– William Randolph Hearst, 1917

Upon inheriting the ranch, William Randolph Hearst hired talented San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, who had already designed more than 500 buildings. From 1919-1947, they collaborated on every aspect of La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill), as he called his hilltop compound, known today as Hearst Castle. They also constructed many ranch buildings—the poultry ranch, dairy barn, horse ranch, and cowboy bunkhouse—still in daily use. Morgan designed San Simeon’s concrete warehouse (resembling a Spanish mission), and spacious homes for ranch employees. The finest was for Don “Pancho” Francisco Estrada, Hearst’s lifelong friend. Born on the ranch in 1854, Don Pancho proudly taught all five of William and Millicent Hearst’s sons—George, Bill Jr., John, David, and Randy—how to rope and ride. San Simeon’s residences are still used by ranch employees, making it the last surviving estate village in America.

Hearst added many ranch improvements over the years, upgrading its Herefords to purebreds, starting a hog-raising operation, and breeding Morgans and Arabians at his Pico Creek stables. He also developed the Morab breed, a Morgan-Arabian cross. In 1925, he expanded the ranch to 250,000 acres by purchasing 153,000 inland acres north of King City. In 1940, when Hearst was nearing bankruptcy, he sold this land to the U. S. Army, which renamed it Fort Hunter-Liggett. Today its large Spanish-style Milpitas Hacienda—built in 1930 to accommodate Hearst, his guests, and the cowboys working this northern part of the ranch—is used as the Army’s Officer’s Club.

By 1946, Hearst had regained his fortune (due to the booming economy, and by downsizing his media empire and art collections). When he died at eighty-eight in 1951, Hearst’s estate was valued at $160 million, much of which went into two charitable foundations. He had hoped the University of California would accept La Cuesta Encantada as a donation, but they refused the gift. Instead, the Hearst Corporation donated the hilltop buildings and their contents to California State Parks, which opened Hearst Castle for public tours in 1958.

Excerpted from Hearst Ranch: Family, Land, and Legacy. Copyright © 2013 by the Hearst Corporation. To purchase a copy, please contact us at (805) 927-4611

History – Notable Years In The History of the Hearst Ranch

1865 – George Hearst purchases the 48,000 acre Piedra Blanca Rancho

1886 – Piedra Blanca Rancho grows to 270,000 acres

1891 – Senator George Hearst, elected in 1887, dies in Washington, DC.

1919 – Phoebe Apperson Hearst dies of Spanish Flu at her Hacienda in Pleasanton, CA.

1919 – William Randolph Hearst begins building the Hearst Castle at the Hearst Ranch, a large integrated farming and ranching operation at this time.

1947 – W.R. Hearst leaves the Hilltop for the last time. He moves to Beverly Hills where he spends his last three years.

1951 – W.R. Hearst dies in Beverly Hills, CA.

1957 – Hearst Corporation and the Hearst family donate the Hilltop to the State of California.

1958 – Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument opens to the public.

1965 – Hearst Corporation purchases the Jack Ranch

2002 – Hearst Corporation and the American Land Conservancy announce the framework for the Hearst Ranch Conservation Project to preserve the unique working landscape of the Hearst Ranch forever.

2005 – Hearst Ranch Conservation Project closes escrow transferring 13 miles of coastline to the State of California, and forever protecting 80,200 acres east of Highway 1 with a perpetual conservation easement.

2007 – Hearst Ranch Beef kiosk opens at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center

2008 – Hearst Ranch named California Beef Cattle Improvement Association Commercial Producer of the Year

2009 – Hearst Ranch and Anaheim Convention Center partner on grass-fed beef cattle-shares

2010 – Hearst Ranch Winery is launched.

2011 – Hearst Ranch Beef and Whole Foods Market Southern Pacific Region pioneer a new culinary movement, introducing seasonal grass-fed Hearst Ranch Beef to select Whole Foods stores in Southern California. Hearst Ranch Winery named 2011 ‘Winery of the Year’ in the Central Coast Wine Competition.

2013 – Hearst Ranch Beef concludes third season of seasonal grass-fed beef production with Whole Foods. Hearst Ranch Beef is featured in 22 Whole Foods markets in the Southern Pacific Region.

2014 – Hearst Ranch Beef concludes fourth season of seasonal grass-fed beef production with Whole Foods and begins year-round program Whole Foods Market – San Luis Obispo.

2016 – Chimney Fire burns across the Hearst Ranch for ten days, consuming over 17,000 acres.

2017 – Hearst Ranch Beef concludes seventh season of seasonal grass-fed beef production with Whole Foods and featured in 41 stores in the Southern Pacific Region.

2018 – Hearst Ranch Beef named ‘Supplier of the Year’ by Whole Foods Market Southern Pacific Region.

The Hearst Corporation still operates the ranch surrounding the Castle, and the Hearst family takes great pride in this property and it is maintained to the highest of standards. The size, high quality of the rangeland, as well as the extremely diverse assemblage of plants and animals is what makes this ranch unique and a jewel of California’s Central Coast. The Hearst Ranch Conservation Project protected the Ranch’s working landscape and conservation values: agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and scenic vistas and coastlines. Today the ranch surrounds the Hearst Castle and comprises 83,000 acres, one of the largest working cattle ranches on the California coast.